What’s All This Fuss About Voltaire?

Within our world of radio, it would have been a wonderful job for Gilda Radner’s Saturday Night Live character, Emily Litella, to ask “What’s all this fuss I keep hearing about Voltaire on the radio? Sure, he was the French philosopher who said, ‘Anything that is too stupid to be spoken is sung.’ That might explain lyrics to a lot of hit songs over the years. He’s also quoted as saying, ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ That would apply to most of the talk radio shows out there.”

In the flow of the sketch, it would have been up to Chevy Chase to interrupt Emily and explain that it’s not Voltaire, the 18th Century philosopher, but a box called a “Voltair” that attempts to increase the detectability of the sub-audible code that’s used to collect ratings for radio.

While the devices are rolled out, the stations that have jumped in already may get some lift in the ratings; and that’s good for those stations. If the devices become widespread and the overall amount of radio listening captured increases, that will be good for the radio business overall. Of course it’s critical that the meters reliably capture the codes being transmitted by stations – and anything that can be done on this front is valuable. All of the attention, however, distracts us from focusing on the larger issues.

To aid in selling broadcast radio time and setting rates, we really need to focus on getting sharply larger samples to deal with the fragmentation of listening to be able to deliver more reliable estimates to the sales departments of radio stations and clusters. The sample sizes being used would have worked fine when there were a handful of strong AM stations to be measured in each market and potential advertisers were persuaded with ratings in broad demos and major dayparts across the entire MSA. With HD subchannels increasingly showing up in addition to the main channels and potential advertisers requiring narrowed custom demos, dayparts and geographies, we simply need larger samples.

To maintain broadcast radio’s share of consumers’ ears against the tide of new competition, we need to reinvest in people to create great entertainment to adapt to consumer needs. The radio business has been adapting to the opportunities available with consumers since the advent of television. Video may have killed the radio star or, more accurately, hired away the radio stars. But, radio adapted to the new landscape and developed programming that has been keeping mobile Americans tuned in for decades.

Radio needs to reinvest so that it can reinvent … again. It was Woody Allen who said, “If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.” In order to innovate, we’re going to have to fail more. But, it was Voltaire who believed that, “No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking.”